Wednesday, April 12, 2006

On a cusp of history

Just after reading Paul's comment of last Sunday, I turned back to The Education of Henry Adams, which I had taken down from the shelf for yesterday's post. In an essay called "The Grammar of Science," Adams continues his struggle to understand what it is that science has unleashed upon the world. The year is 1903, and science and culture are in the throes of an extraordinary revolution, and Adams knows it. The central lesson he takes from his readings of science, and the tutorials of his scientifically informed friends, is that we can know only the small fraction of the universe that is available to our senses -- "much as the deep-sea fish takes for granted the circle of light which he generates." This is a radical departure in history -- humankind's first admission of ignorance -- and he doesn't quite know what to do with it.

Give this to Adams: He perceived almost before anyone else the central discovery of 20th-century science -- the shattering of absolutes. Beyond the sensual was only chaos, or at least that was all he could put a name to. And yet he -- we -- long for access to the supersensual. A yen for transcendence is possibly part of our genetic makeup. And here precisely is the central dilemma of our time, which few of us have come to terms with. After 1900, wrote Adams, "no one could any long hope to bar out the unknowable, for the unknowable was known."

I would say: Be grateful, Paul, as I know you are, for those momentary insights. It is when we grasp them and refuse to let them go, trick them up in law and dogma, and make of our ignorance the Golden Calf of idolatry (or the God of Moses, for that matter), that we lose the thing which is most precious -- the unnamable, unknowable that reveals itself only in fleeting intuitions.